The Merry Tsarina and Russian Dance
     Before the reign of Peter the Great, dance in Russia existed only among the common people, among the peasants and lowest classes living outside the city fortresses. The feudal nobility did not dance, but enjoyed the amusing services of dancing clowns, who were on the whole, men.
     This difference among the social classes in the development of dance culture occurred naturally as a result of one historical event: the Tartar-Mongolian invasion and the subsequent destruction of Rus (the old Russian kingdom). This invasion ruined the people's way of life and interrupted the development of the dance traditions of its people by halting its logical succession.
     During those terrifying times for Russia, the influence of the Orthodox Church was greatly solidified and strengthened. Religious ideology penetrated all aspects of spiritual culture. Under the impact of Christian asceticism, which included a dogma that held dancing to be sinful, a profound change began to take root in the people's consciousness of the representatives of the privileged classes. Under the influence of this ideology, the upper classes began to call dancing "satanic" and its performers, scandalous.
     At that time in Europe, salon dancers were already necessary and important components in social life. But, as Alexander Pushkin wrote, Russia long remained foreign to Europe until Peter the Great appeared. "Peter the Great's reforms", wrote G. Plekhanov, "brought the end of the predominance of theological elements in the outlook of the Russian people."
     The nobility's world outlook altered, in particular the attitude towards dance as an art. This transformed dance in Russia and helped it acquire the role it enjoyed in European culture.
     From the time that Peter the Great established dancing assemblies in 1817, Peter the First's daughters, the young Grand Duchesses Anna and Yelizaveta, were in constant attendance.
     During the Peter Assemblies, the young Yelizaveta delighted all, not only with her dancing gifts but, with an ability for every kind of improvisation. The French Ambassador, La Vie wrote, that the Grand Duchess "drew attention to herself in the dances, displayed.... ease of movement, quickness and inventiveness, continuously thinking up new figures".
     A.Karnilovich wrote of the dancers of that time, "Of the ladies, first place was taken by the Grand Duchess Yelizaveta Petrovna; the Princesses Cherkassky and Kantemir, Countesses Golovkin and Dolgoruky also distinguished themselves...Assemblies were given not just once in St. Petersburg. With the court's arrival from Moscow in 1722, a soiree was established in the capital, taking place by decree three times a week: on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Besides that, there were private balls, where there were fewer guests, but the festivities were merrier. At these, dances sometimes lasted until three o'clock in the morning."
     From childhood, a love for dance coincided with Yelizaveta's artistic talent and never abandoned her. Her talent even prompted Prince M. Sherbatov, who was usually antagonistic towards her, to write, "In youth, hers was the perfect beauty, pious, charitable, compassionate, generous. Endowed by nature with sufficient reason, she however lacked any education whatsoever....Having by nature a cheerful disposition, she had a thirst for merriments; (she) felt her beauty and passionately decorated herself with various adornments."
     After the death of her father, Yelizaveta's carefree life continued during the reign of her mother, Catherine I (1725-1727). "Agile, lively, full of grace...she was the Queen of the Balls..." wrote M.Semevsky.
     From childhood, Yelizaveta was surrounded by nannies and wet-nurses, common Russian women and girls. She absorbed more than their prejudices and superstitions. Together with her serf girls, the Princess "danced" and "played" ceremonial folk dances (khorovod or ring dances) particular to each peasant festivity, told fortunes and listened fairy tales. Yelizaveta knew many songs and dances and was acquainted with the peculiarities of the traditional simple folk dances composed even before Peter the Great's time. Thus were the tastes and attachments of the future Empress formed between the songs, games, and dance traditions of the common people, and the Europeanised dance assemblies and official celebrations hosted by Peter I.
     Apparently, at one of the Imperial balls, Yelizaveta performed a "Russian" dance in front of the many gathered natives, who became upset because foreigners were also present to see it. Unfortunately, history does not record the exact date of this important event in the history of Russian dance, though it had significant consequences in all spheres of Russian theatrical and salon dances of the time.
     The significance of this wonderful fact can be explained by an entire series of psychological and artistic reasons. On one hand, Yelizaveta was skilled in the highest form of European style of salon court dancing, the so-called "sophisticated" minuet. At that time the minuet was closer to ballet seria ("serious ballet") and was performed at balls before numerous palace guests as a unique dancing display. Yelizaveta was also experienced in ballet dancing. According to historian Jacob von Stahlin, the Italian ballet teacher, "Fossano taught her and her small entourage, ballet dances." She also studied with the French ballet teacher, Jean Baptiste Lande, who as Nikolai Drizen wrote,- "taught dancing to Yelizaveta herself." Von Stahlin cites Lande, saying that at the Russian Imperial Court they danced the minuet "according to the rules, gracefully and at ease." He added, "We can take the example of the Empress Yelizaveta, as (being) one of the truly superlative and accomplished dancers."
     On the other hand, the Empress possessed experience in the performance of Russian folk dances. These skills, along with her talent for improvisation, allowed Yelizaveta to create a new, secular style of "cultivated" Russian dance which did not exist until then, neither among the common people nor in the aristocracy. The Empress enhanced the authentic essence of the commoner's dance, ( with its popular rituals and predominant ceremonial group characteristics) with the qualities of professional ballet grace, harmony of movement infusion them with her own individual methods of expressiveness. Thanks to Yelizaveta, the general character and manner of Russian national dance began to find professional form.
     The amateur noble court dancers underlined the natural, distinctive beauty of Russian dance in every way, and adopted it into their aristocratic lifestyle. It goes without saying, Yelizaveta was responsible for this.
     From the moment Empress Yelizaveta ascended to the throne in 1741, a new era began in state government politics: an intensive development of national Russian art and culture. In many aspects this was stimulated by the artistic gifts of the new Empress.
     "The Merry Tsarina" (as the Empress was called) enjoyed the pleasures of life, especially the brilliant celebrations and the theatre. While preparing for her coronation, she ordered that an Opera House be constructed in Moscow. The allegorical prologue Oppressed and Comforted Russia was produced, along with a ballet and an Italian opera Titus' Mercy. Mikhail Lomonosov ( founder of Moscow University ), took part in their preparation.
     The ballets charmed everyone. The Happiness of the People on the Appearance of Astrea was given as a prologue, and the ballet The Golden Apple at the Feast of the Gods, or The Judgement of Paris concluded the program. They were choreographed by Jean Baptiste Lande, who taught dance not only to Yelizaveta, but also to her heir, Peter III ( who had come to Russia), and to his bride, the future Catherine the Great (Yekaterina II).
     In 1744, an important event in the history of Russian dance took place. With participation from his Russian pupils, choreographer Lande produced for the first time a Russian dance on the court stage. This was not in the comic-grotesque style of the West, but significantly, in the "high" genre of dance serieuse ("serious dance"). During the celebration, given in honor of the wedding of Peter III to the future Catherine II ("the Great"), Lande choreographed the dances for the opera The Union of Love and Matrimony and The Ballet of Flowers. In fact, " at the time of costume and scenery changes", i.e. during the interval, "music, Russian songs... were played, and after, the dancers, Agrafiena and Aksinya , performed a Russian folk dance... Russian dancers, particularly Agrafiena and Aksinya, showed great artistic quality", wrote theatre historian Vsevolod Vsevolodsky - Herngross. The Empress was even known to have commented, "What is Russian always has greater impact on the Russian heart than what is foreign..." Agrafiena and Aksinya were honored with an opportunity to speak with Yelizaveta, who gave them gold earrings for their artistry both in the ballet and in the Russian folk dance.
     Thus, for the first time in Russian ballet theatre history, Russian dance was performed by Russian ballerinas on the Russian court stage. It is only natural that Yelizaveta's former teacher, Lande, created the first "Russian plyaska" or folk dance for the stage , taking into account the tastes of his former student. He strived to poeticize the dance, generalizing the interpretation of national folk dance traditions, thereby forming the basic aesthetic principles of Russian ballet. A theatrical turning point in dance, these principles proceeded from the truthful portrayal of folklore, which excluded any characteristics of ridicule or stupidity in the common person.
     During Yelizaveta's reign Russian dance found its stage personification. Thus, in the last third of the 18th century, Russian dance contributed to the development of realistic tendencies not only in ballet, but also in the Russian theatre. The first ballet, opera and drama artists performed Russian dances wonderfully on stage. At the same time, they were creating new forms of court ballroom dances like the Russian plyaska and kazachok, which were taught until the 20th century in all official Russian educational institutions - at the Cadet Corps, gymnasiums, boarding schools and institutes. This occurrence does not have any analogy in the majority of West European cultures.
     The work of Alexander P. Sumarokov had a particular historic importance in the growth of Russian stage dance, and in relation to dance culture in general. He succeeded in adding a highly patriotic resonance to Russian dance in his prologue New Laurels and in his first Russian ballet, The Refuge of Virtue. Sumarokov's works were created against the background of the brilliant victory of the Russian army in the war against Prussia. Indeed, at that time - a time of political confirmation of Russia's significance in Europe - Sumarokov created The Ballet of Russian Men and Women. The new politics associated with the reign of Yelizaveta confirmed the beginning of Russian roots in a Russian national culture, not in the least restricting the sphere of dance.
     The wish to organize a professional court theatre did not leave Her Imperial Majesty. To that end, in 1752 she ordered that seven choristers enter the Sukhoputny Shlyakhetny Corps in order to learn dance, music, and the French and German languages. In September of the year, she decreed the appointment of Ivan Dmitrievsky and A. Popov to the Corps. In 1753, she commanded that the tragedy Sinav and Truvor be selected and learned by them. The following year, she appointed the brothers, Feodor and G. Volkov to the Shlyakhetny Corps. The tragedies that they prepared were than presented to Yelizaveta in 1754, who apparently was pleased with the result. In January 1755, by her decree the young company was transferred from the Corps to the Palace under the command of Sumarokov. On August 30, 1756, the Empress signed a decree regarding the establishment of the Russian theatre and, a year later, she signed another decree concerning the Russian Academy of the Arts, where great attention was paid to the teaching of music, dance and drama. It is worth remembering that Moscow University opened in 1755 at the initiative of Mikhail Lomonosov and Ivan Shuvalov "for the sake and honor of the country". Simultaneously, the University became the cradle of Russian theatre in Moscow. In the curriculum, music, singing, dancing and art were all included.
     Thus, the artistic gifts of Russian woman Yelizaveta, not only defined her personal taste and creativity, but also played a great historical role in the development of Russian art.

by Olga Vsevolodskaya - Golushkevich

This article first appeared in «Sovietsky Balet», issue No.2, 1991

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